Building Collaborations to Rebuild Marshland

As the Donald and Martha Harleman Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Heidi Nepf examines how water and coastal vegetation interact. Marshland in the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, has eroded over the last century—depriving Gulf states of a protective buffer from storm surge—due to man-made rerouting of the Mississippi River, which once provided a constant supply of sediment and freshwater to the marshes. Nepf is working on a project with Christopher Esposito of the Water Institute of the Gulf to understand the role vegetation plays in trapping sediment to rebuild marshes. This will inform the design of water diversions intended to restore some of the Mississippi’s flow back to the marshes.

This collaboration wouldn’t have been possible without her professorship, Nepf explains. It gave her the discretionary funding to attend a set of preliminary meetings with the Water Institute, which led to the grant that funds the project. She finds it especially meaningful that Donald Harleman SM ’47, ScD ’50, while a professor at MIT, also worked on modeling natural systems to improve human lives. “It’s an honor to have his chair,” she says.